"My Voice Speaks for Itself": The Experiences of Three Transgender Students in Secondary School Choral Programs

 

Joshua Palkki, California State University, Long Beach

josh.palkki@csulb.edu

 

Recent publications suggest that the U.S. may be at a “trans(gender) tipping point” (Steinmetz, 2014) or experiencing a “gender revolution” (Henig, 2017). This revolution is also occurring in American schools. Research suggests that teachers may be unprepared to honor transgender students in their classes (Luecke, 2011; Nichols, 2013; Payne & Smith, 2014). As more trans students “come out”, the more teachers will need to be aware of classroom gender dynamics (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011; Grossman & D’augelli, 2006). School choral music is ‘gendered’ in many ways and exist within a highly gendered school environment (Pascoe, 2007). Rarely questioned traditions like “men’s” and “women’s” choirs, choir dresses and tuxedoes, and lyrics portraying gender stereotypes can make the choral experience troublesome for gender variant students.

 

This session will present data from a multiple narrative case study exploring the musical lives and lived experiences of transgender (trans) students in three high school choral music programs. The problems of the study were: (1) to describe how transgender students enrolled in secondary school choral music programs navigated their gender identity in the choral context, and (2) to describe if/how transgender students in secondary school choral programs were supported by groups including their choral teachers, choral peers, and school administrators. The emergent research design employed narrative inquiry and ethnographic techniques to honor and highlight voices of the three participants: Sara, Jon, and Skyler (pseudonyms), whose stories revealed the importance of context and geography in shaping the experiences of trans youth in schools. In addition, all three participants had gender realizations around eighth grade. The connection (or lack thereof) between voice and gender identity was different for each of the participants—a finding with significant implications for preservice choral music teachers. Unlike suggestions from Miller (2016) and Silveira and Goff (2016), these data suggest that a more nuanced and personalized approach to voice part assignments is necessary, in which teachers must be conscious of the connection level between a trans student’s voice and gender identity.

 

The policies of the participants’ school districts, high schools (administrators), choral programs, and state music organizations shaped and influenced how Sara, Jon, and Skyler navigated their trans identity within the high school choral context. Well thought-out policies related to gender identity and expression are important as they “can affirm or disavow students’ identities” (Catalano, 2015, p. 425). In the midst of a political climate peppered with rhetoric about bathroom bills (e.g., Rogers, 2016), it is important that preservice teachers remain aware of school-, district-, organization-, state-, and federal-level policies that can dramatically influence the experiences of trans students in school music programs.

 

Mentors and “important others” helped these students as they traversed their gender journeys. It is vital that preservice choral music teachers understand the terminology, struggles, and experiences of transgender students before they enter the P-12 classroom. Teacher training programs, secondary schools, and choral programs can make curriculum and policy changes, both large and small, in order to better serve trans youth.

 

References

 

Beemyn, G., & Rankin, S. R. (2011). The lives of transgender people. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Catalano, D. C. J. (2015). “Trans enough?” The pressures trans men negotiate in higher education. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 411–430. doi:10.1215/23289252-2926399

Grossman, A. H., & D’augelli, A. R. (2006). Transgender youth. Journal of Homosexuality, 51(1), 111–128. doi:10.1300/J082v51n01_06

Henig, R. M. (2017, January). Rethinking gender. National Geograhpic, 231(1), 48–73.

Luecke, J. C. (2011). Working with transgender children and their classmates in pre-adolescence: Just be supportive. Journal of LGBT Youth, 8(2), 116–156. doi:10.1080/19361653.2011.544941

Miller, J. R. (2016). Creating choirs that welcome transgender singers. Choral Journal, 57(4), 61–63.

Nichols, J. (2013). Rie’s story, Ryan’s journey: Music in the life of a transgender student. Journal of Research in Music Education, 61(3), 262–279. doi:10.1177/0022429413498259

Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Payne, E., & Smith, M. (2014). The big freak out: Educator fear in response to the presence of transgender elementary school students. Journal of Homosexuality, 461(3), 399–418. doi:10.1080/00918369.2013.842430

Rogers, K. (2016, February 25). Transgender students and “bathroom laws” in South Dakota and beyond. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/

Silveira, J. M., & Goff, S. C. (2016). Music teachers’ attitudes toward transgender students and supportive school practices. Journal of Research in Music Education, 64(2), 138–158. doi:10.1177/0022429416647048

Steinmetz, K. (2014, May). The transgender tipping point. TIME.com, 183(22). Retrieved from http://time.com/